Image from the exhibition.

Weapons have always exerted a special attraction on men's minds. It is said that, in this century, the most brilliant intellects have been monopolized by weaponry. But the phenomenon is not new. From Archimedes and Vitrivius to Alfred Nobel, whose life (1833-1896) is contemporary to the present models, names such as Leonardo da Vinci and Francesco di Giorgio, have been associated with weaponry.

In fact, there is a striking similarity between some of Leonardo's designs and these patents. In his 1871 patent (No. 115,659) for a Repeating Ordnance, A. H. Townsend states:

My invention relates to that class of guns which is constructed to throw numerous balls from different barrels, and either
simultaneously or in quick succession.

While Leonardo, writing to Ludovico Sforza said:

I have also types of cannon with which to hurl small stones with the effect almost of a hail storm.

Comparison of the drawings shows identical basic designs.

Obadiah Hopkins' redoubt (Patent No. 32,206) may also owe much to Leonardo's Armoured Car, at least in general appearance and shape.

There is, in weapons, at the design stage, a geometric simplicity, a ballistic necessity and a distanced objectivity attractive to the mathematical mind. The mind of the designer engrosses itself so totally in its primary objective that it becomes as possessed by an "idee fixe". Other consequences and side effects are minimized, discounted, or forgotten. It takes the impact of the organic for the full horror to splash on the mind. Firearms make this impact more distant. And so, even Peter Cooper could love his torpedo boat for the sake of freedom, while Leonardo could write:

When besieged by ambitious tyrants, I find a means of offence and defence to preserve the chief gift of nature, which is Liberty.

But as Martin Kemp remarks:

This may sound like the worthy sentiments of a Florentine democrat, until we realize that it was written while he was working for Ludovico [Sforza] il Moro, usurper of absolute power in Milan, to whom Leonardo was committed to divulge his military secrets.

And so it goes "mutatis mutandis."

Of course, it is not simply the long range of weapons that makes the distancing possible. The mind does it through the use of language: euphemism and caricatures. Colt's revolver exhibited at the Crystal Palace in London in 1852 was said to be

perfect for subduing the irregular, impetuous rush of such warlike tribes as the Kaffirs, the Afghans, the American Indians and the New Zealanders.

Like a vanishing El Dorado, or the proverbial better mouse-trap, each new weapon was supposed to bring the final answer, the final victory that would usher peace. Yet, it turns out to be no more than a challenge to the inventive genius of another inventor who sets out to out-perform the latest invention.
Sabers and bayonets, however, which call for hand-to-hand combat or even eye-to-eye contact, retained something of the mystical power of the ceremonial weapons found in the tombs of the Ancient Warriors.


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